Liberty, Community, and the National Idea

Nothing is so central to America's image of itself as the idea
of individual liberty. It is, we believe, what spurred many of
the first European settlers to leave their homelands and come
to our shores. It drove the revolutionaries who broke with England
and created a new nation. It shaped the Constitution and, above
all, the Bill of Rights. And it has been, we claim, the defining
characteristic of our democracy for more than two centuries.

It is true, of course, that rights and freedoms have been central
to our history and basic to our political and social system. But
they have not been the only force shaping our public world. At
least equally important, through most of American history, has
been the idea of community.

In our present political world, there is considerable anxiety
about how successfully the idea of community has survived in the
twentieth century and considerable criticism of the preoccupation
with rights that many critics claim has dominated (and distorted)
both liberalism and conservatism in the postwar era. This is an
old complaint. Americans have been lamenting the decline of community
for centuries--since at least the seventeenth century, when Puritan
clerics began delivering jeremiads lamenting the passing of the
close-knit religious communities of the first years of English
settlement. The laments about the decline of community today are
less theological, but no less impassioned. Intellectual and popular
discourse alike are filled with warnings that the core of our
life as a nation is disappearing, that we will soon find ourselves
bereft of the institutional and cultural underpinnings of a healthy

A growing chorus of powerful voices has emerged in recent years--led
by (among others) Michael Sandel, Robert Putnam, Alan Ehrenhalt,
Michael Walzer, Benjamin Barber, Amitai Etzioni, along with a
very large part of the political right--charging that the bonds
of community in the United States are dangerously eroding; that
the character of our civic life has changed in ways that often
seem to accentuate individual, as opposed to community, loyalties;
that we are in danger of becoming an atomized society unable to
forge the social bonds capable of sustaining our shared life.
Both liberalism and conservatism in our time, some communitarian
critics claim, have often tended to elevate rights to so high
a place in the lexicon of values that other, equally important,
values have suffered. There is at least some truth in these claims.


American liberalism for most of the past 50 years has at times
seemed wedded to the idea that individual rights are paramount
and that only in exceptional cases can a national or community
interest override them. Michael Sandel, for example, argues that
liberals insist on government remaining neutral on questions of
values and morality--on it playing no role in defining a good
life or a good society, because any such definition would likely
favor one group's values over those of another. Citizens are autonomous--independent
selves who must define their own values and goals. And government's
role is to create the kind of society in which every individual
can live, as much as possible, as he or she chooses. Sandel is
correct, in theory at least, that liberalism in our time has at
times seemed firmly wedded to the ideas of individual autonomy
and unfettered personal choice, and that some liberals have celebrated
their marriage to that concept by pointing to dark alternatives-to
the dangers inherent in more collective social orders. Indeed,
to some liberal intellectuals, the idea of community has not only
seemed less important than individual rights, but even a potential
threat to them. They have embraced an argument, made particularly
clear more than 60 years ago by Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man
and Immoral Society
. "Individual men," Niebuhr wrote,

may be moral. . . . They are endowed by nature with a measure
of sympathy and consideration for their kind. . . . Their rational
faculty prompts them to a sense of justice. . . . But all these
achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human
societies and social groups. In every human group there is less
reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence,
less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more
unrestrained egotism than the individuals, who compose the group,
reveal in their personal relationships.

In other words, Niebuhr (and some more recent liberals) claim
that liberty, and even morality, reside most effectively within
the autonomous individual; the more the individual becomes embedded
within a group (a "crowd," a "mass"), the
more endangered liberty and morality become. It is on the basis
of this strain--an often powerful strain--within liberalism that
the communitarian critique is founded.

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Much of American conservatism, despite its contempt for what liberals
have done in the last half century, rests heavily on a similar
set of beliefs. Many conservatives also attribute to liberty a
value far higher than they attribute to any community or collective
interest; they too see the collective as not just inferior to,
but a threat to, personal freedom. Their definition of liberty
rests much more heavily than the liberal definition on the idea
of economic freedom: the commitment to an unregulated free market,
the belief that economic freedom, as Friedrich Hayek wrote 50
years ago in The Road to Serfdom, is inseparable from all
other notions of freedom because economic power "is the control
of the means of all our ends." Where some liberals believe
government must be neutral in its relationship to values, behavior,
and social norms, many conservatives believe government must be
neutral in terms of markets, economic institutions, and the distribution
of personal wealth. Where some liberals fear the irrationality
and immorality of the "mass," some conservatives fear
the tyranny of the state.

This regime of rights and freedoms--a regime supported, in different
ways, by elements in both political parties and by some of the
most powerful political philosophies of the last half century--has
culminated, its critics charge, in our present political moment:
in a raging popular discontent with the public world, in a sense
among many of our people that they have lost control of their
lives, in a growing despair about the future, and in a belief
that the institutions that have guided us through most of our
history have somehow spent themselves. The public world as we
have known it in our time, many have come to believe, seems to
lack the resources to answer that cry. Society yearns, they claim,
for something more than rights and freedom--for a sense of community
capable of giving individual lives meaning, for the civic life
that forms the basis for the liberty we cherish.


The communitarian critique, as eloquent and compelling as it seems
in the context of our present, unhappy public life, has serious
shortcomings--both as a description of politics as it is and as
a prescription for politics as it should be. It is not wholly
clear, first of all, that the bonds of civic life have in fact
eroded as thoroughly as some critics charge. The supposed erosion
of what communitarians (and many others) call "civil society"
and what Robert Putnam has called "social capital" is
almost impossible to document. Many traditional institutions of
civic life have indeed weakened or vanished, but many new ones
have emerged to replace them--a process that has been continuous
in American society for two centuries.

Nor is it clear that either liberalism or conservatism in our
time have been as wholly wedded to the idea of rights as the critics
claim. There are, in fact, countless examples of the ways in which
both liberals and conservatives have, in fact, offered definitions
of the "good life" and the "moral society,"
definitions that go far beyond a simple endorsement of personal
liberty. For liberals, a wide range of social policies--housing
subsidies, highway building, environmental regulations, civil
rights and affirmative action, public support for the arts, and
others--do, in fact, express a vision of a "good life,"
even if it is one that critics of liberalism may find insufficiently
ennobling. Many liberals have gone further and endorsed ideas
of national service, cooperative workplace structures, and other
explicitly communitarian goals. Conservatives, too, have proposed
visions of community based on a prescriptive moral agenda that
proposes a wide range of behavioral norms rooted in a normative
(and often religious) concept of how individuals and families
should live and behave.

But the largest shortcoming of the communitarian argument is the
way some of its advocates define community itself. Many (although
certainly not all) contemporary communitarians consider community
inseparable from localism. It is the neighborhood church, PTA,
Little League, Boy Scout chapter, Elks Club, or (to use Robert
Putnam's now famous example) bowling league that is the source
of civic life. It is the local voluntary association--the sort
of organization that Tocqueville argued was so characteristic
of early nineteenth-century America--that makes it possible for
individuals to embed themselves in a community. Some communitarians,
to be sure, see a link between the local community and the nation.
They see in local civic life a vehicle for creating habits of
community interaction and social trust, out of which a larger
political community can eventually emerge. But other communitarians--those
on the right in particular--envision no such links. The threat
to community, they claim, is not just excessive individualism;
it is also excessive centralization. The "community"
stands in opposition to the "nation" or the "government."
It is a defense against impersonal bureaucracies, against the
state, against the larger world. And as such, they claim, it is
part of a tradition deeply embedded in American history.

It is true, needless to say, that this localistic vision of community
has deep roots in the American past--as the frequent evocations
of Tocqueville by today's communitarians make clear. Historians,
and others, have spent several decades now exploring the tradition
of what they call republicanism, a vision of society that emerged
in the eighteenth century and survived (according to some, although
not all, of its chroniclers) through the nineteenth and into the
twentieth (in the form of various populist movements, in some
areas of the labor movement, in some parts of the left, and even
in parts of the communitarian right). The republican tradition
(closely associated with, among others, Thomas Jefferson) places
a high value on personal liberty, to be sure, but it situates
liberty within the fabric of a relatively small and homogeneous
community whose citizens operate according to a shared moral code
and a respect for social norms.

What gives rights and freedoms meaning? Many liberals and
libertarians would argue that their meaning is inherent, that
they are themselves the foundation of our public world. But republicans
would argue differently. Liberty has no meaning except in a social
context; rights cannot be sustained unless there is a civic life
healthy enough to create a shared commitment to them. Communities
create freedom; freedom does not create itself. But in order to
create freedom, communities also create obligations--obligations
to honor certain common values, to respect certain institutions,
to accept some common definition of what is good. We cannot hope
to be truly free, according to the tradition of republicanism,
unless we identify with and share in the governance of the political
community upon which our freedom depends. And we can only do so,
many republicans have argued throughout American history, if the
community remains small enough that individuals can realistically
expect to exercise some power within it.

The historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, in one of his
last books, The True and Only Heaven, drew particular attention
to today's close-knit, ethnically homogeneous, working-class communities
as examples of healthy, vibrant societies. Lasch was deeply disheartened
by the condition of modern middle-class life--by what he considered
its heedless materialism, its resistance to social bonds, its
rejection of obligation to family and neighborhood, its isolation
of individuals into self-regarding, narcissistic beings. The strong
Italian or Irish or Jewish or other ethnic neighborhoods of many
American cities, with their strong family and community bonds,
seemed to him a model for what the rest of society might become.
And it is true that there is much to admire in the close and enduring
ties of family and church and neighborhood, in the sense of mutual
obligation, that characterize many such communities. A healthy
society depends on strong families, vibrant neighborhoods, healthy
schools, churches, and fraternal societies--thriving patterns
of local, personal association. Those things are the foundations
of community. Without them, the forces in modern society that
isolate individuals would be impossible to withstand.

But Lasch's example, although he never said so, also reveals the
problem of basing our hopes for community entirely on local, family-centered,
and neighborhood-centered structures. The United States is a vast
nation of remarkable diversity, and its most difficult dilemma
throughout its history has been finding a way for so many different
kinds of people, and so many different kinds of communities, to
live together peacefully and productively. That dilemma has become
even more perplexing in the twentieth century, as a modern industrial
economy and a pervasive mass culture have made it virtually impossible
for any group to live in complete isolation. A purely local vision
of community is, today at least, a prescription not for harmony,
but for balkanization and conflict. The tight-knit ethnic communities
Christopher Lasch celebrates may have many virtues, but they can
also be, and have often been, places where bigotry flourishes
and inter-racial violence often erupts. Other kinds of insular
communities seem even more hostile to any notion of a stable,
tolerant society: the gated, affluent communities that are now
spreading across our landscape, based on an understandable fear
of crime, to be sure, but an ominous sign of the fragmentation
of our nation; the armed cults and militias, which have become
visible to us only relatively recently, which set themselves up
in opposition (at times violent opposition) to government and
mainstream society; some, although by no means all, of the militant
Christian communities, which attempt to impose a rigid religious
orthodoxy on unwilling neighbors; and many others.


But there is also a larger vision of community, with equally strong
roots in American history. The kind of community that forms the
basis of a stable, healthy society--particularly a society as
vast and diverse as ours--transcends parochialism. It rests at
least as much on a concept of the nation as it does on the concept
of the neighborhood, or the town, or the region. This idea of
a national community is, in fact, among the oldest and most powerful
in our history--at least as old and as powerful as the republican
ideal with which it sometimes seems, at least, to compete. It
is the source of our Constitution and the basis of the most powerful
political traditions of the first century of our nation's existence.

The framers of the Constitution wanted, of course, to protect
liberty. They wanted to create a form of government that would
ensure the rights of the individual. But they understood, too,
that liberty could only be secure in a large political community,
a genuine nation. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia
(according to James Madison's diaries), Alexander Hamilton "confessed
that he was much discouraged by the amazing extent of the Country
in expecting the desired blessings from any general sovereignty
that could be substituted." How, he asked, could a national
government effectively unite such a vast and diverse nation? Hamilton
was expressing a widely shared fear, expressed most prominently
by the French political theorist Montesquieu and widely understood
throughout the English-speaking world. Popular government, Montesquieu
warned, could not function within a large country; such a government
would be torn apart by "a thousand private views" and
would lead to efforts by ambitious leaders to produce despotism.

But James Madison offered an answer to Hamilton and Montesquieu--an
answer that Hamilton ultimately embraced and that became the heart
of the American national idea. The size and diversity of the nation,
Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 10, was in fact the best hope
for stability. The greatest danger to a healthy society, Madison
argued, was "faction": "a number of citizens .
. . who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion
or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to
the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."
How could a society avoid the plague of faction? There were two
ways, Madison argued. One was "removing the causes of faction,"
a dangerous course because it would involve either destroying
liberty or creating an enforced uniformity of views--both of which
would be remedies "worse than the disease." The other
was "controlling [the] effects" of faction. And to do
that, he claimed, required a large political community in which
every faction, no matter how large, would have to deal with, and
accommodate, others. "A pure Democracy," Madison wrote,
"by which I mean, a Society consisting of a small number
of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person,
can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction." The solution
to faction lay in an extensive republic, spanning a vast and diverse
country, where no one faction could prevail.

George Washington, in his 1796 Farewell Address (largely written
by Hamilton), stressed the importance of a strong national union
as the framework for a workable national community. The union
was not simply a structure within which factions could do battle;
nor was it simply a strong central government capable of tempering
local passions; it was a state of mind--a commitment of citizens
to each other and to a common sense of purpose and obligation,
"an indissoluble community of interest as one nation."
Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and the other founders of our nation
had great respect for the small communities that bound the lives
of most citizens. But they understood, too, that for America to
survive and flourish, there had to be a larger idea of community
as well, one that embraced the nation.

Their idea was not uncontested. Jefferson for a time offered a
partial dissent, in his vision of a small agrarian republic united
by the commonality of interest and sentiment of its citizens rather
than by the power of a strong national political community; but
Jefferson, as president, gradually moved away from his agrarian
vision and presided over a significant increase in both the extent
and the unity of the nation. A more serious challenge came in
the mid-nineteenth century from the American South. "The
very idea of an American People, as constituting a single community,
is a mere chimera," John C. Calhoun once said. "Such
a community never for a moment existed." The Civil War was,
among other things, a battle to defeat Calhoun's idea. Daniel
Webster based his famous defense of the Union on the idea that
the survival of liberty depended on the survival of a national
community--"Liberty and Union, one and inseparable, now and
forever." There was, he insisted, a "common good"
that transcended local interests, a partnership based in part
on economic interest but also in part on spiritual union. One
of the great admirers of Webster's words was Abraham Lincoln.


The concept of a national community met a challenge again in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the rise of
large-scale industrial capitalism and the enormous social and
economic dislocations that accompanied it. Laissez-faire capitalism--and
such intellectual rationales for it as social Darwinism--celebrated
individual initiative, the "survival of the fittest,"
and the value of acquisitive individualism as the basis of society.
Everyone ultimately benefited from the achievements of talented,
successful people, the social Darwinists claimed. Constraining
their activities in the interests of the "community"
would be to retard the healthy progress of society.

The populists offered one answer to laissez-faire. Economic growth
that disempowered individuals and eroded communities was, they
insisted, both unfair and unnecessary. The economy could grow
and prosper in a more humane way, through a network of smaller-scale
institutions rooted in communities; but it could also grow and
prosper through the intervention of a powerful national government
holding industrialists, financiers, and in the end everyone to
a higher standard than maximizing profit. The local communities
they were fighting to preserve could not survive, the populists
believed, without a national community capable of restraining
private power and protecting the interests of ordinary people.
(The "populism" of our own time, which sees the only
danger in society in a powerful national government, is a radical
perversion of the original populist idea, which rested in part
on the older republican notion of a "moral community"
but that also embraced the more modern notion of a strong national
government that defended individuals and communities from the
great predatory organizations that had grown up to threaten them.)

Another response to laissez-faire came from progressive
reformers, among them Theodore Roosevelt, a great champion of
industrial growth and economic progress, but also a staunch defender
of the idea of "the solidarity, the essential unity of our
[national community]." Great forces had been unleashed in
the modern world, Roosevelt recognized, forces that had enormous
capacity to do good, to create progress. But that progress would
be for naught if it came at the cost of the dignity of individuals
and the vitality of communities. Individuals and localistic communities
were powerless by themselves to withstand the assaults of modern,
large-scale organizations. Only a national community--embodied,
Roosevelt believed, in a vigorous democratic state--would make
it possible for local communities, and the individual liberty
dependent on them, to survive. "I believe in corporations,"
Roosevelt once said. "They are indispensable instruments
of our modern civilization; but I believe that they should be
so supervised and so regulated that they shall act for the interest
of the community as a whole." The health of the nation depended
on the "capacity to subordinate the interests of the individual
to the interests of the community," and the realization of
that capacity depended on national standards and national power.

The New Deal is remembered, and often excoriated, today as the
source of contemporary liberalism, and its supposed preoccupation
with rights and entitlements. And the New Deal did, of course,
contribute in critical ways to the creation of the rights-based
liberalism that has been so much in evidence in the last half
century. But the New Deal was also deeply committed to the concept
of community--both to the restoration of local communities and
to the strengthening of the national community in which those
smaller units are embedded. From the beginning of his administration,
Franklin Roosevelt's rhetoric was suffused with images of nationhood,
of interdependence, of community. In his first inaugural address,
he never once used the words liberty, individual, or equality.
The early New Deal was, above all else, an effort to find concepts
of community capable of transcending the bitter struggles dividing
groups in the economy and the society from one another. The New
Deal's first major effort at economic reform, the National Recovery
Administration, tried (although it ultimately failed) to create
what New Dealers called "cooperative action among trade groups,"
to define a "community of interest" that would draw
together capital, labor, government, and the consumer. It was
an effort to temper the brutality of the industrial economy, to
insist on national standards of "community interest"
amid the brutal competitive struggle of capitalism.

Many of those impulses ultimately faded from New Deal thought,
and others--which focused more intently on rights and entitlements--emerged
to replace them, so that postwar liberalism had a weaker connection
with the idea of community than most of the progressive and reform
traditions that preceded it. Postwar conservatism, too, in its
preoccupation with delegitimizing the New Deal and opposing communism,
elevated the idea of liberty to a more central place than it had
ever occupied before. The present popular discontent with the
public world may or may not be a result of a real decline in community
sentiment and community institutions. But that discontent has
often taken the form of a lament for the passing of community
and a yearning for its revival; and many of those who make such
laments have found contemporary political discourse barren of
language and ideas capable of satisfying them. The arguments of
the communitarians of both the right and the left in recent years
have emerged in response to that broad frustration.

These small chapters in the history of ideas of community
in America, therefore, resonate with questions that preoccupy
our own time. History teaches us, we hear from many quarters (including
the halls of Congress and the bench of the Supreme Court), that
a strong national community, and a powerful national government,
are artificial accretions of modern liberalism, incompatible with
our traditions and our values. But history teaches us no such
thing. Our traditions and our values have never been fixed or
uniform and they have always included--in addition to a strong
commitment to individual rights and personal freedoms--a powerful
sense of the value of community and the importance of nation.

The political world of today is preoccupied with divisions and
oppositions: the government versus the market; the national versus
the local; the public versus the private; liberty versus community.
The rhetoric of our time asks us to choose among these conflicting
values and ideas--to accept that we can have one but not the other.
But the history of our nation's political traditions suggests
that these divisions are entirely artificial, that it is unnecessary
to choose. Indeed, not just unnecessary, but destructive. We need
a vigorous government and a healthy market. We need strong national
institutions and strong local ones. We need a healthy public world
and a healthy private one. Above all, perhaps, we need--to paraphrase
Webster--liberty and community; for neither is sustainable without
the other.

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